First US Navy African-American Pilot A Hero In Korean War – Part 2

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Ensign Jesse L. Brown, USN In the cockpit of an F4U-4 Corsair fighter, circa 1950. He was the first African-American to be trained by the Navy as a Naval Aviator, and such, became the first African-American Naval Aviator to see combat. Brown flew with Fighter Squadron 32 (VF-32) from USS Leyte (CV-32). Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

A 1949 executive order by US President Harry Truman de-segregated the American armed forces. Still, one can only imagine that Ensign Brown’s presence as the first US Navy African-American carrier pilot raised a few eyebrows when he first joined his squadron. But military aviators have a very strong code of mutual obligation. So strong, in fact, it bears repeating that Brown’s wingman crash-landed his own aircraft to try and help his comrade.

After the rescue helo landed, the men could not lift the heavy hydraulic panel off of Brown’s legs no matter how long and how hard they tried. Brown drifted in and out of consciousness but never once complained. Perhaps he was too injured to have survived anyway. We will never know. But he did not die alone. As night fell, Ensign Brown passed on with his wingman, Lt. Hudner, at his side.

Because the crash site was so far behind enemy lines, the squadron commander decided he could not risk a mission to recover the body. To pay tribute to their comrade and to keep the North Koreans from mutilating the body, Hudner, who had returned to the ship with the rescue helo, and three squadron mates flew to the crash site the next day and dropped napalm on the body of their deceased comrade, Ensign Jesse Brown, still in the cockpit of his wrecked Corsair.

In the resulting fire, Ensign Brown’s body was cremated. It may seem unusual to those of us outside the military aviation fraternity, but the pyre of smoke and flame created by his squadron mates which marked Ensign Brown’s final resting place, was the highest tribute his fellow warriors could give him.

[Source: Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea, 1950 by Martin Russ. Image courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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